The formula ‘God is love’ is often used as if it were a trump card that enabled its user to win every ethical and theological debate. Moreover, it is appealed to in person-to-person communication and behaviour, so that everything that is said and done is evaluated according to whether the other person feels loved. The flip side of this is, of course, seen in the current interest in ‘hate speech’ and its associated attitudes and behaviours.
The trouble with this approach is that it very readily lends itself to the conclusion that Jesus himself was not very ‘Christlike’. Why did he spend so much of his time criticising people and going on about hell and judgement? Why didn’t he just get alongside people and affirm them?
Ian Paul offers some helpful thoughts, and these form the basis of what follows.
1. God’s love is ‘self-generating and self-originating’. It is not drawn out by anything lovable in its object. This is especially clear in Deut 7:7-9. It is also implied in those many texts where God is said to be ‘not a respecter of persons (Acts 10.34, Rom 2.11, Eph 6.9, Col 3.25, James 2.1, 9, 1 Peter 1.17)
We ourselves are called to love others in the same way: ‘regardless of the merit or virtues of the one loved.’ And to set out to do see even though, in our frail and finite humanness we cannot fully avoid the song’s sentiments, ‘I love you because…’.
2. God’s love is continually crossing boundaries. This is clear enough even in the Old Testament, where God crosses the boundary between heaven and earth in order to make himself known to his people. This points towards the eschatological hope of the New Testament, and the final abolition of all boundaries.
We see the boundary-crossing nature of God’s love in the ministry of Jesus. The parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ (Lk 10) is presented as a commentary on the OT command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’: suggesting that such boundary-crossing was already latent in the OT understanding of love.
The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), however, introduces a ‘curiosity’. Here, it is not the loving father who goes out searching for the lost son (as in the preceding parables the shepherd searches for the lost sheep, and the woman searches for the lost coin). Rather, we have a father who patiently waits for the son to ‘come to himself’ and receives him with open arms when he returns home.
According to Lk 15:2, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ Indeed, it was precisely this accusation that led to the series of ‘lost and found’ parables. But Jesus did not invite sinners to eat with him. Rather, he accepted their invitations to eat with them in their own houses.
(As Ian Paul says, ‘the only meal where Jesus is host is the one for his disciples, which anticipates the eschatological meal with the redeemed in the new creation.’)
All of this underlines the consistent message of the gospels. Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Lk 5:32). This call to repentance
‘is no easy acceptance of others, no simple rejection of Pharisaical concern with holiness (which Jesus appears in principle to accept and set as a benchmark for his followers in Matt 5.20 and Matt 23.3)—and it bears little relation to contemporary ideas of tolerance, inclusion and acceptance.’
3. Time and again in the New Testament, God’s love is linked with God’s forgiveness. The kind of love with which God loved the world is a love which gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (Jn 3:16).
Eph 2:4f – ‘But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved!’
Rom 5:8 – ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’
1 Jn 4:8-11 – ‘The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love. By this the love of God is revealed in us: that God has sent his one and only Son into the world so that we may live through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, if God so loved us, then we also ought to love one another.’
This last reference makes two things abundantly clear: (a) God’s love is propitiatory (out of his great love he sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins); (b) God’s love is exemplary (if we have received it, we cannot remained unchanged by it).
It is this inseparable connection between the love of God and our own need for divine forgiveness that begins to resolve the tension we feel between the texts of love and the texts of judgement. What God has joined, let not man put asunder:
‘If the love of God is expressed in the offer of rescue from sin and death, then the acceptance of this offer of rescuing love has serious consequences.’
The beloved Jn 3:16 sits itself next to a declaration of divine judgement:
‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil.’
The love of God, rightly understood, is as ‘divisive’ as it is ‘inclusive’. We have no right to declare the love of God without declaring the fateful destiny of those who reject it.